Alex Wodak, is a director of ATHRA (Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association), an organization that admits to having no members, has past support from the vaping industry and  a tobacco funded group, and had unexplained fingerprints of a tobacco-industry PR agency on its website. He has featured in 3 out of 6 blogs in this series I’ve been inspired to write on bizarre things vaping advocates say. Today, I was forwarded yet another award-winning gem which is going straight to the poolroom.

In a fawning Facebook interview with fellow vape advocate Fiona Patten MP, Wodak raised his already high ranking for saying very silly things (see here, here, and here) when he explained his take on why there are people who continue to flash bright amber lights about vaping. He calls them “prohibitionists”. Patten explains to viewers that her interview is taking place the day after “Tobacco .. err ..International Tobacco Free Day or as many of us were naming it International Vaping Day.”

At 22 minutes into Wodak’s considered thoughts about how the vape crusade is traveling in Australia, their exchange goes like this:

Fiona Patten: It seems to me that some of the people who you would have thought would be on the harm reduction side are actually on the prohibition side. And I put people like Simon Chapman in there and Rob Moodie in there, in that in the past you would have imagined them to be on the side of harm reduction and not in the Salvation  … the Major Watters ‘just say no’ camp.

Alex Wodak: … One reason is that while these people have been warriors for trying to reduce smoking and who attacked the tobacco industry absolutely rightly when it was impregnable fortress, and who got punished by Big Tobacco for the temerity of trying to challenge them, they all suffered at the hands of Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco’s very nasty and they all got hurt and damaged in the process. So it’s not a surprise to me that they now take the attitude that this is just another twist or turn and this is Big Tobacco playing dirty tricks again and conning people like you and me who haven’t been involved in the debate. (italic emphases are mine)

So according to our new oracle of tobacco control, apparently everything about my assessment of the claims made for vapourised tobacco can be explained by having been punished, suffered, hurt and damaged by Big Tobacco. How obvious then, that I don’t trust them.

But his rant is just spray-your-coffee stuff. I’ve thought hard but cannot recall ever having been “punished, suffered and damaged” by Big Tobacco.  I have never had any aspect of my career damaged by them. In fact, nothing could be so totally 180 degrees wrong. And I’ve never in any way suffered personally. Instead, across  the 40+ years I’ve worked in tobacco control, it was the tobacco industry which was constantly damaged and punished. Nearly everything … everything …  that I and my many colleagues fought for was won: major campaign funding, total advertising and promotion bans, ever-increasing unforgettable graphic pack warnings, total indoor area smoke free laws, seriously sales-withering tobacco tax rises, plain packaging, retail display bans, a duty-free limit of just one unopened pack, a ban on personal importation of cigarettes and a near total denormalization of smoking from an elegant accoutrement of style to a wretched, near universally regretted addiction that kills two in three long term users. If you have a few months to spare, go to this massive website and read about it all.

By contrast, across this time the tobacco industry been a decades-long serial winner of the  least trusted industry wooden spoon, its leadership is like a proverbial revolving door, and it publicly admits it understandably finds it hard to attract quality staff. Most politicians today would rather accept a photo opportunity with the grim reaper than be snapped in a Big Tobacco corporate box at a sporting event. Unlike in the 1950s when some of its senior figures were knighted, today their appearance in a  civil honours list would be like a rabid dog winning Crufts dog show, while tobacco control leaders regularly are gonged in recognition of their huge achievements in seeing smoking fall to its lowest level since data began being collected (me, Mike Daube AO, Kingsley Faulkner AM, Nigel Gray AO, David Hill AO, Anne Jones OAM, Bronwyn King AO, Alan Lopez AC, Rob Moodie AM, Michael Moore AM, Bill Musk AM, Andrew Penman AM, Matthew Peters AM, Lyn Roberts AO, Michelle Scollo AM, Maurice Swanson OAM, Melanie Wakefield AO).

A more punished, suffering, damaged and hurt list you are unlikely to find anywhere. But Wodak apparently knows otherwise.

Elsewhere in the interview Wodak says that people like me are on first name terms with health ministers. I’ll be sure to remember that the first time I ever get to talk with Greg Hunt (Commonwealth), Brad Hazzard (NSW) or any of the other state and territory ministers whose names I’d have to look up before talking with them too.

He also repeats one of his favourite claims that smoking prevalence has been becalmed in Australia for years. (Actually daily smoking has fallen from 12.8% in 2016 to 11% in 2019 —  a 14% fall.) Wodak then says that in the last 3 years the number of people in Australia who have vaped has gone from 240,000 to 520,000, a 78% rise in the same period (see here for a close look at what those numbers actually mean).

But there’s also a teensy little problemette here which I expect most people could see immediately but which may have escaped him. With such a massive upswing in vaping why didn’t we see a correspondingly huge downswing in smoking across the same period if vaping is such an incredibly effective way of quitting smoking?

Here’s a graph of what’s happened to smoking in Australia since 1980. See if you can spot the point where all this vaping onslaught made its huge impact.

Source: Tobacco in Australia website

Perhaps it’s because vaping might hold more people in smoking than it tips out of it? A  recently published paper from the ITC-4CV four country (Australia, USA, UK, Canada) cohort survey found that after 18 months:

“smokers with established concurrent use [smoking and vaping] were not more likely to discontinue smoking compared to those not vaping … it is clear that the rates of transitioning away from smoking remain unacceptably low, and perhaps current vaping tools at best bring the likelihood of quitting up to comparable levels of less dependent smokers. The findings of our international study are consistent with the findings of the US PATH transition studies, and other observational studies, in that most smokers remain in a persistent state of cigarette use across time, particularly the daily smokers.”

Patten and Wodak repeat the vaping theological tenet that people like me are  vaping “prohibitionists”. Vaping theology is not very nuanced. You are either a harm reductionist or a prohibitionist. There is nothing in between. As they know, I have always supported regulation of alternative nicotine delivery systems in parliamentary submissions and blogs here, here and here. So calling me and all the many other health agencies in Australia who support the government’s prescription for vapouriser nicotine proposal “prohibitionists” is like calling the 300+ million prescriptions issued in Australia each year a prohibition on prescribed drugs. You know it makes sense. In the interview, Wodak calls all this forthcoming prescription access activity “rigmarole” but is on record as writing, “Vaping is to smoking what methadone is to street heroin.” Methadone is available only via prescription. Perhaps he thinks methadone should also be stocked in every corner store right alongside the kid-friendly bubblegum-flavoured disposable vapes?

For me, Wodak’s most telling words are his admission that “I’ve been involved in this area for five years”. Wodak has been a highly respected drug policy expert, but as my late father might have said, when it comes to tobacco control policy, he’s very much come down in the last shower.

Other blogs in this series:

Vaping theology: 1 The Cancer Council Australia takes huge donations from cigarette retailers. WordPress  30 Jul, 2020

Vaping theology: 2 Tobacco control advocates help Big Tobacco. WordPress 12 Aug, 2020

Vaping theology: 3 Australia’s prescribed vaping model “privileges” Big Tobacco Feb 15, 2020

Vaping theology: 4 Many in tobacco control do not support open access to vapes because they are just protecting their jobs. WordPress 27 Feb 2021

Vaping theology: 5 I take money from China and Bloomberg to conduct bogus studies. WordPress 6 Mar, 2021

Vaping theology: 6 There’s nicotine in potatoes and tomatoes so should we restrict or ban them too? WordPress 9 Mar, 2021

Vaping theology: 7 Vaping prohibitionists have been punished, hurt, suffered and damaged by Big Tobacco WordPress 2 Jun, 2021

Vaping theology: 8 I hide behind troll account. WordPress 29 Jun, 2021

Vaping theology: 9 “Won’t somebody please think of the children”. WordPress 6 Sep, 2021

Vaping theology: 10: Almost all young people who vape regularly are already smokers before they tried vaping. WordPress 10 Sep, 2021

Vaping theology: 11 The sky is about to fall in as nicotine vaping starts to require a prescription in Australia. WordPress 28 Sep, 2021

Vaping theology: 12 Nicotine is not very addictive. WordPress 2 Jan, 2022